Necessity is the mother of invention. I just didn’t make it to the multiplex this week, but, fearing reprimand by my masters here at Popdose, figured I had to come up with something. Salvation arrived on Monday, via press release. “Wayne Wang’s The Princess of Nebraska Enjoys Record-Setting Debut on YouTube,” it read. “165,000+ views in a two-day period is the biggest online opening ever for a feature-length studio film.” My razor-sharp journalistic instincts sniffed a story, a thankfully easy-to-get story I could put together between diaper changes (my daughter’s, not my own).
It got better: Beyond the headline, the release said that had the movie opened in theaters, it would have ranked No. 15 for the weekend, ahead of City of Ember, Religulous, and Lakeview Terrace. And, most important, it was free. Hell, yeah: I could sit in front of my MacBook and enjoy the 15th-ranked movie, for free (I wouldn’t pay 50 cents to watch City of Ember), pop out a few comments, and invite you to watch it, too, giving the whole experience a little of that crazy new-media interactivity the kids are always talking about. Stop reading (assuming you started reading, when you realized Saw V would not be on today’s menu) and click on over to YouTube’s Screening Room, “a new channel dedicated to premium film content,” at http://www.youtube.com/ytscreeningroom. Then tune in, and wait for those red heels to start pacing in the big box on the left side of the screen. Those boots are made for walking, and The Princess of Nebraska is gonna walk all over you.
But, whoa, hit pause, or stop. The main event can wait. Let’s look around. I like the clean, red-draped look, very “theatrical” and less busy than the hectic funhouse that is the rest of YouTube. There’s an archive of short films to explore at the bottom, including an expanded (but still short) version of the 2002 Oscar winner in the live-action category, Thoth. Spend 42 minutes on that one if you’d like—it won an Academy Award, after all—then come back. Or multitask, and read and watch at the same time.
(I can’t do that. DVD players are standard-issue on computers and God knows I have lots of DVDs to watch, but I have a hard time enjoying them while toggling between applications. I like to give movies something like my full attention, which I guess differentiates me from a world wired to shove eight unique experiences down our synapses all at once. But I digress.)
OK. Now go back to the Featured Films section. There’s our Princess, slightly annoyed at having been dissed. Taking their cue from the Chinese-American main event, the “coming attractions,” three more short pieces, hail from Asia, and are a more worthwhile sit than the commercials and trailers we’re force-fed at theaters. In New York, some audiences rebel when shorts are appended to feature presentations at the IFC Center; I happen to like them (the good ones, anyway) but understand the impatience factor. I didn’t get restless here: The Korean one, The Chestnut Tree, is sweet, Scab, from Japan, as weird and distracting as intended, and The Tired City, from Hong Kong, is whimsically bittersweet, capturing a certain vibe from that inescapably urban place. This being YouTube, you can share, replay, rate, and review them. (The Chestnut Tree gets the highest, five-star rating of the batch.)
Now we’re ready to meet the Princess, who is still on the go in her pink pants. We’ll try to stick with her, but a little backstory here for those who can read and eyeball video screens at the same time. Wang, the co-director (with Richard Wong), was at the vanguard of American independent cinema in its glory days of the 80s, with 1982’s Chan is Missing. Twenty years later, I saw him in Central Park, directing Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes in the flossy Maid in Manhattan. He’s made films that have shown on Turner Classic Movies (Eat a Bowl of Tea and The Joy Luck Club), a movie I adore (Smoke), and films that will never show on TCM in a gazillion years (Last Holiday, with Queen Latifah). This one is a companion piece to A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, which YouTube says is playing in theaters. Make that “played,” I think: Box Office Mojo reports a run in seven theaters, and a U.S. gross of about $74,000. That number suggests Prayers went unanswered, though it’s not an atypical sum for an indie in our overheated movie bazaar, where 10-12 titles open per week almost routinely in New York, and will till the credit crash turns off the faucet. To snag an audience, YouTube is a much better proposition: About 25,000 more views have been recorded since that big opening number (though what is there to compare it against?), it’s received over 400 comments, and it has a solid four-star rating.
Not from me, however, and maybe you’ve already rolled over elsewhere to the site. (I like the cat videos. The kitten fighting with the electric toothbrush cracks me up every time.) The film runs 79 minutes, about an hour more than I could abide, yet I stuck it out. For one thing, it’s shot in nervous, handheld digital video, an apt look for YouTube but problematic for a sustained stretch, given that it’s somewhat smeary in texture and blew up poorly when I expanded the image to full screen. For another, the story, of a pregnant 18-year-old Chinese student (Ling Li) who flies from Omaha to San Francisco to get an abortion, only to be sidetracked, is insubstantial. Wang empathizes with his princess, a member of China’s drifting post-Tiananmen Square massacre generation, and the movie is maybe too faithful to her scattershot view of her predicament. Like the camerawork, it doesn’t come into focus.
Still, we tried. I applaud that YouTube, the copyright graveyard, is encouraging new work and has built a nice, protective showcase for it. Other, more interesting orphans of the cruel marketplace are likely to shelter there. It’s a trend worth taking note of, this latest wrinkle in distribution to a fragmented audience—just remember to keep your Cherry Coke a safe distance away from the keyboard while you watch.